Francisco Lindor has finished in the top 10 of AL MVP voting three straight seasons
In many ways, 2018 was the Year of the 25-year-old in Major League Baseball. Mookie Betts led the Boston Red Sox to a World Series title while also running away with the American League Most Valuable Player Award. Tampa Bay Rays lefty Blake Snell posted an incredible 1.89 ERA across 31 starts on his way to AL Cy Young Award honors. Cubs infielder Javier Baez emerged as an all-around star and finished as the runner-up in the NL MVP race, and Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramirez came in third in the junior circuit.
Elsewhere, Aaron Judge cemented his place among the most recognizable players in the game as he and Xander Bogaerts each earned AL MVP votes following successful age-25 campaigns. Manny Machado played a significant role in the Dodgers' second consecutive run to the World Series following a midseason trade from Baltimore, and he and Bryce Harper entered the offseason as two of the youngest and most notable superstars in the history of the MLB free agency, and both signed long-term mega-million-dollar deals.
In all, 12 of the 25 players our list of the best baseball players 25 and younger from last season have graduated. Along with a few that fell off following disappointing performances, more than half the spots on this year’s list were freed up for a new crop of young, rising superstars.
Is there an MVP or Cy Young winner in the bunch? Which players will be the talk of 2019? We count them down.
Note: To be eligible, a player must be 25 or younger as of Opening Day (March 20). Current age is in parentheses.
1. Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians (25)
Simply put, Lindor is one of baseball's top all-around superstars. The switch-hitting shortstop posted 7.6 Wins Above Replacement in 2018 according to FanGraphs, meaning only Mookie Betts (10.4 fWAR), Mike Trout (9.8), and Jose Ramirez (8.0) were more valuable among all MLB position players. Lindor hit .277/.352/.519 with 38 home runs and 92 RBIs last season. He scored 129 runs, stole 25 bases and posted 14 Defensive Runs Saved on his way to a third straight All-Star appearance, as well as a third consecutive top-10 finish in AL MVP voting. Despite missing time this spring with a calf injury, we can expect Lindor to be one of the best players in all of baseball again this year. In other words, if anyone on this list can surpass Betts and Trout in the MVP conversation, it's Lindor.
2. Luis Severino, P, New York Yankees (25)
Like Lindor, Severino will be limited by injury early in the 2019 season. But also like Lindor, Severino has established himself as one of the best at his position at an early age. Last year, he earned his second straight All-Star nod, as well as his second consecutive top-10 finish in the AL Cy Young race. Severino posted a 19-8 record with a 3.39 ERA and 220 strikeouts in 191.1 innings across 32 starts. His 2.95 FIP was identical to Snell's, and Severino walked nearly one fewer batter per nine innings (2.16 compared to Snell's 3.19) while posting a higher fWAR (5.5) than the Cy Young winner (4.8).
3. Alex Bregman, 3B, Houston Astros (24)
One of the key members of the 2017 World Series champion Astros, and baseball's newest $100 million man, Bregman matched Lindor’s 7.6 fWAR and earned more MVP votes (he finished fifth in the race in 2018) while posting a solid .286/.394/.532 slash line with 31 home runs, 103 RBIs and 105 runs scored in his second full major league season. Bregman showed better plate discipline by walking more often and striking out less, and played adequate defense at third base — putting him in the discussion as one of the AL's best overall at the hot corner.
4. Matt Chapman, 3B, Oakland Athletics (25)
Of course, Matt Chapman is also on the shortlist of the AL's top third basemen. Defensively, there's no question. The A's Gold Glover - nay, Platinum Glove winner — burst onto the scene as a 25-year-old in 2018, and because he won't turn 26 until late April, soared towards the top of our list this year. Chapman isn't only one of the best defenders in the majors, he proved productive at the plate as well, hitting .278/.356/.508 with 24 home runs and 68 RBIs while also scoring 100 runs in 145 games. Chapman's production (his 6.5 fWAR ranked seventh among all MLB position players) and was a huge reason why Oakland qualified for the AL Wild Card Game last season, and it helped him to a seventh-place finish in the AL MVP race.
5. Aaron Nola, P, Philadelphia Phillies (25)
Only 13 pitchers logged 200 or more innings in 2018, and just four of those — Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber, and Justin Verlander pitched more than Nola's 212.1 frames. That's impressive company in any case, but even more exciting for Phillies fans is the fact only the runaway NL Cy Young winner deGrom (1.70) posted a lower ERA than Nola (2.37). Also, thanks to a 50.6 percent groundball rate, deGrom (0.41) was the only pitcher in that elite subset to surrender fewer home runs per nine innings than Nola's 0.72. Overall, Nola was worth 5.4 fWAR, which ranked ninth among qualified MLB starters, and fourth in the NL.
6. Ronald Acuna Jr., OF, Atlanta Braves (21)
Though he has the power to hit in the middle of the order, and the all-around skill set to be productive in the increasingly popular two-hole, Acuna sparked the first postseason run for the Braves in five years and earned NL Rookie of the Year honors largely based on his results as a leadoff hitter. After moving to the top of the order full-time on July 20, Acuna hit .322/.403/.625 with 19 home runs, 45 RBIs, and 54 runs scored and 14 stolen bases. He finished with a .293/.366/.552 slash and 26 homers, with 64 RBIs, 78 runs and 16 steals in 111 games. Barely 21, Acuna has the potential to become one of baseball's top superstars, and if his sophomore season picks up where he left off in 2018, Acuna could power Atlanta back to the postseason.
7. Trea Turner, SS, Washington Nationals (25)
Few major league players provide the all-around value of Turner. Turner is capable of hitting in a variety of spots up and down the lineup, and he shuffled primarily between the leadoff spot and the two-hole while hitting .271/.344/.416 in 162 games last season. He has a unique blend of power (19 home runs) and speed (an NL-leading 43 stolen bases) that plays well in both spots. Turner also plays solid defense at a premium position, and though he has played shortstop exclusively since 2017, Turner has logged time at second base and center field during his career, giving the Nationals flexibility at multiple spots in both the infield and outfield. Put it all together, and Turner was worth 4.8 wins last year and nearly 10 over three seasons, according to FanGraphs.
8. Juan Soto, OF, Washington Nationals (20)
Acuna's late-season surge robbed Soto of NL Rookie of the Year honors. Remarkably, Soto began the season in high-Class A, and he played just eight games in Double-A before his promotion to Washington. Soto homered in his first start, hit .348/.449/.682 with six long balls in his first 21 games as a big leaguer, and finished his age-19 season as a three-win player. In 116 games, Soto hit .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers, 70 RBIs and 77 runs scored, which all added up to one of the greatest offensive performances ever recorded by a teenager. Soto's unexpected emergence (Victor Robles entered 2018 as the higher ranked Nationals' outfield prospect), significantly softens the blow of lowing Bryce Harper. Truth be told, he was a better player in 2018, so it shouldn't be a shock if Soto proves to be a better player than Harper over the long term.
9. Corey Seager, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers (24)
He only played in 26 games in 2018 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, but don't forget Seager was arguably the best shortstop in baseball over his first two major league seasons. In fact, no MLB shortstop was more valuable in terms of fWAR (12.8) from 2016-17, a period in which Seager hit .302/.370/.497 with 48 home runs, 149 RBIs and scored 190 runs in 302 games. He also made the NL All-Star team twice, won two Silver Sluggers, was named the 2016 NL Rookie of the Year, and finished third in the NL MVP race in his first full season. Health is everything, and we can't guarantee Seager returns to his 2016 form, but he's as talented a player as there is.
10. Andrew Benintendi, OF, Boston Red Sox (24)
Overshadowed in the star-studded Red Sox lineup by Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, Benintendi is nevertheless one of the most valuable outfielders in all of baseball. Last year, Benintendi posted a solid .290/.366/.465 slash with 16 home runs and 87 RBIs across 148 games. Hitting primarily in the No. 2 spot in the lineup (and occasionally atop the order), Benintendi helped set the table for other Red Sox sluggers, and as a result, scored 103 runs. In all, Benintendi was worth 4.4 fWAR, which ranked No. 9 among all MLB qualified outfielders, and No. 31 among qualified position players overall.
11. German Marquez, P, Colorado Rockies (24)
Something remarkable has happened in Denver: the Rockies have developed a quality pitching staff. Even more extraordinary? Marquez was downright dominant over the final three months of the 2018 season. In 17 starts from June 30 to the end of the regular season, Marquez went 9-3 with a 2.47 ERA, 146 strikeouts and just 22 walks in 113 innings. He held opponents to a .207/.253/.331 slash line over that same period, surrendering only 85 hits and 10 home runs despite making seven of those starts in Coors Field (and posting his two worst performances on the road). Marquez has shown progress in each of his first three big league seasons, and after finishing 2018 with a 3.77 ERA and 3.40 FIP across 33 starts, there's hope he's conquered Colorado's thin air and he could challenge for a Cy Young Award in the near future.
12. Kyle Freeland, P, Colorado Rockies (25)
Because his birthday falls in mid-May, Freeland has already completed his age-25 season. Nevertheless, with six weeks to spare, Freeland qualifies for our list, and thanks in large part to a top-four finish in the NL Cy Young Award race last year, he's well worth a spot in the top 15 (and arguably higher). Like Marquez, Freeland has done what was once seemingly impossible in successfully navigating the minefield that is the Coors Field pitching mound. Bizarrely, Freeland posted better numbers nearly (home runs aside) across the board at home, including an eye-popping 2.40 ERA in 93.2 innings across 15 starts in Colorado, while holding opponents to a .228 batting average and .298 on-base percentage. He also threw 6.2 scoreless innings in the NL Wild Card Game against the Cubs.
13. Shohei Ohtani, P/DH, Los Angeles Angels (24)
Speaking of Cy Young Award contenders, Ohtani has the talent to bring home the hardware, and his 3.31 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 51.2 innings across 10 starts played a major role in his run to the AL Rookie of the Year Award last year. However, Ohtani also succumbed to elbow trouble and Tommy John surgery, meaning he won't pitch in 2019. Fortunately for the Angels (and for fans across baseball enamored with Ohtani's unique skill set), the 24-year-old two-way player should be healthy enough to swing a bat in May. If he continues to hit at the same .285/.361/.564, 22-homer clip he posted last season (including a noteworthy .313/.387/.656 domination of right-handed pitching), Ohtani could set the stage for an MVP candidacy whenever he returns to the mound.
14. Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF, Los Angeles Dodgers (23)
The fact Bellinger slipped several spots from his place on this list since last year (seventh) is indicative of two things: First, there is an increasing amount of high-level, major-league talent concentrated in players 25 years and younger, and secondly, Bellinger set an unbelievably high bar for himself as a rookie. As a 21-year-old in 2017, Bellinger hit 39 home runs and drove in 97 in just 132 games. Last season, Bellinger — who was dependable enough to play in 162 games and contributed at four positions — saw his numbers fall to 25 homers and 76 RBIs. On the bright side, Bellinger hit .312/.388/.509 from Aug. 1 to the end of the season, which helped raise his sophomore slash to .260/.343/.470, and also helped the Dodgers make it back to the World Series.
15. Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros (24)
This time last year, Correa was our top-ranked player under the age of 25. He took a step back in 2018 while missing significant time due to a series of ailments and hit just .180/.261/.256 with two home runs in 37 regular-season games after returning from a six-week stint on the injured list in August. Correa posted 1.7 fWAR overall and finished with a .239/.323/.405 line in 110 games last year. He hit a career-low 15 home runs and saw his RBI and run totals drop to 65 and 60, respectively. Alas, Correa showed some life in the postseason, and with multiple five-win seasons already under his belt, the Astros shortstop still has as much upside as any player in baseball.
16. Edwin Diaz, P, New York Mets (25)
Only one pitcher in the current 25-and-under category finished higher in the 2018 AL Cy Young Award voting than Severino: Diaz. A flamethrower with one of the most dominant swing-and-miss sliders in all of baseball, Diaz saved an MLB-best 57 games for Seattle while also posting a 1.96 ERA and 1.61 FIP in 73.1 innings. The 24-year-old cut his walk rate nearly in half from 11.5 percent in 2017 to 6.1 percent last season, while bumping his strikeout rate from 32 percent to 44.3 percent — second among all pitchers that worked 10 innings or more. He's one of the best closers in all of baseball, and the best among those 25 or younger.
17. Jose Berrios, P, Minnesota Twins (24)
Much like the Twins franchise itself during his major league career, Berrios has struggled with consistency. Take his first six starts of the 2018 season, for example. Berrios tossed a shutout against the Orioles in his first start and allowed five runs in 4.2 innings against Seattle in his second. He then tossed seven scoreless innings in back-to-back starts versus the White Sox and Indians, respectively, followed by starts against the Yankees and Reds in which he allowed nine runs in just seven combined innings. His strikeout totals fluctuated similarly, including four starts in which he recorded double-digit Ks (with a high of 12 in seven dominant innings against the Rangers June 24) and four in which he notched two or fewer (including zero against Cincinnati April 29). But despite his ups and downs, Berrios put together an All-Star campaign in which he recorded a career-best 3.84 ERA with 202 strikeouts in a career-high 192.1 innings, cementing his place among the best young starters in baseball.
18. Matt Olson, 1B, Oakland Athletics (25)
Olson hit an incredible 24 home runs in just 59 games as a rookie in 2017, posting a .651 slugging percentage, .392 ISO, .411 wOBA and 163 wRC+ along the way. Based on such a strong breakout performance, Olson's 2018 production was slightly underwhelming. Nevertheless, 29 home runs, 85 RBIs, 84 runs scored and a surprise trip to the postseason is nothing to sneeze at. Olson hit .247/.335/.453 across 162 games in 2018, and though his numbers fell off nearly across the board, he ranked a respectable 23rd among qualified hitters in ISO (.207), No. 28 in wRC+ (117), and No. 30 in wOBA (.340). He also raised his walk rate from 10.2 percent to 10.6 percent and shaved more than three points off his strikeout rate to finish at 24.7 percent. Unfortunately, Olson injured his hand in Oakland's opening series against Seattle in Tokyo and underwent surgery. It's unknown how long the injury will sideline him.
19. Joey Gallo, 1B/OF/DH, Texas Rangers (25)
How on earth could a player coming off back-to-back 40-home run seasons before the age of 25 rank so low? Though Gallo is always a threat to go deep, and his ability to play multiple positions is an asset, the holes in his swing often overshadow his power production. Gallo struck out 207 times overall and whiffed 35.9 percent of the time in 2018, which ranked third and second among qualified hitters, respectively. As a result, he hit just .206/.312/.498 last season and is an extremely similar career .203/.317/.498 hitter, which doesn't offer a ton of hope he'll break out to hit for average anytime soon. But 40 homers are 40 homers, and J.D. Martinez and Khris Davis are the only two players in baseball other than Gallo to club that many in each of the last two seasons.
20. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B/DH, Toronto Blue Jays (20)
Likewise, how could a player yet to make his major league debut be ranked so high? It's possible we'll look back on Vlad Jr.'s spot on this list as a case of hubris, but Guerrero is as close to a can't-miss prospect as we've seen. He has Hall of Fame bloodlines and has absolutely dominated minor league pitching despite consistently ranking among the youngest players in every level in which he's competed. In three professional seasons in the minors, Guerrero has hit .331/.414/.529 across 276 games. He has 41 career home runs, including 20 combined between stints in Double- and Triple-A last year as a 19-year-old, and he has driven in 200 runs in 1,211 plate appearances. Given his past production and his elite upside as one of, if not the, top prospects in baseball, Guerrero is expected to hit .306/.368/.511 with 22 homers and 77 RBIs as a major league rookie in 2019 according to the Steamer projections system. Assuming he shakes off a hand injury suffered in spring training, Guerrero should arrive in Toronto before the calendar turns to May.
21. Ozzie Albies, 2B, Atlanta Braves (22)
There's been a bit of a resurgence at second base in terms of offensive production. Javier Baez rose quickly to the top of the leaderboard at the position with a near-NL MVP performance, and Jose Altuve won the award in the AL in 2017. Whit Merrifield was quietly a five-win player last year, and Jed Lowrie (4.9 fWAR) and Scooter Gennett (4.5) weren't far behind. Each of those players is now 26 or older, but Albies — who won't turn 23 until January 2020 — stacks up quite well. Albies scored more runs than any MLB player at the position, and only Baez hit more home runs. Despite a rough second half, Albies hit a solid .261/.305/.452 in 158 games, with 24 home runs, 72 RBIs, and 105 runs scored. Combining his good speed and strong defense, Albies was worth 3.8 wins in 2018, and he could be poised to become the next great MLB second baseman.
22. Gleyber Torres, 2B, New York Yankees (22)
Like Albies, Torres was an All-Star at the age of 21 last season. Also like Albies, Torres was productive at the plate, hitting .271/.340/.480 with 24 home runs and 77 RBIs across 123 games. Torres was at his best early in the season, as he hit .325/.381/.596 with nine long balls in 33 games through the end of May — outstanding for a player penciled into the No. 9 spot in the order more often than not. Though Torres (like Albies once again) fell off in the second half of the season, his potential is off the charts. Simply put, we should expect many more All-Star campaigns for Torres in the coming years.
23. Walker Buehler, P, Los Angeles Dodgers (24)
No Kershaw, no problem? Though Buehler won't get the ball on Opening Day for the Dodgers, the 24-year-old right-hander proved himself capable of holding down an important role in the starting rotation for the back-to-back NL pennant-winners. Buehler made 24 appearances (23 starts) during the regular season last year and posted a sparkling 2.63 ERA with 151 strikeouts and 37 walks in 137.1 innings to finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. He added four postseason starts to his resume, including seven shutout innings against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the World Series. Whether or not Kershaw misses significant time this season with the shoulder soreness that sidelined him most of the spring, Buehler has the chops to keep the LA rotation humming along in 2019.
24. Josh Hader, P, Milwaukee Brewers (24)
Thanks in large part to the wider acceptance of analytics across the game, top relief pitchers have seen their roles shift dramatically over the last few years. As front offices and managers grow more accustomed to using their best relievers in high-leverage situations outside the ninth inning, the traditional closer is less common today than at any point this century. Relief aces like Hader, who can protect a lead over multiple innings when necessary or slam the door in the ninth when called upon, are far more common. Hader was particularly nasty in an All-Star 2018 season in which he went 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA, 12 saves and 143 strikeouts in 81.1 innings spread across 55 appearances. The lefty led the majors with a 46.7 percent strikeout rate during the regular season and added 10 scoreless frames across seven postseason appearances in which he fanned 16 of the 35 hitters (45.7 percent) he faced.
25. Jack Flaherty, P, St. Louis Cardinals (23)
Flaherty posted an all-around excellent stat line as a 22-year-old rookie in 2018. Flaherty was 8-9 with a 3.34 ERA and struck out 182 hitters in 151 innings across 28 starts, deftly carving up hitters with one of the best sliders in baseball. And despite lackluster results in each of his last three games (in which he posted an ugly 8.53 ERA across just 12.2 IP), Flaherty finished with a solid 3.86 FIP that suggests he largely deserved his results. However, Flaherty still has room to improve. If he can cut down on a 9.6 percent walk rate, which limited his ability to pitch deeper into games, Flaherty could post even better numbers in 2019 and beyond.
Miguel Andujar, 3B, New York Yankees (24)
Harrison Bader, OF, St. Louis Cardinals (24)
Shane Bieber, P, Cleveland Indians (23)
Paul De Jong, SS, St. Louis Cardinals (25)
Rafael Devers, 3B, Boston Red Sox (22)
Jose Leclerc, P, Texas Rangers (25)
Nomar Mazara, OF, Texas Rangers (23)
Adalberto Mondesi, IF, Kansas City Royals (23)
Brandon Nimmo, OF, New York Mets (25)
Roberto Osuna, P, Houston Astros (24)
Others to Watch in 2019
Willy Adames, SS, Tampa Bay Rays (23)
Jorge Alfaro, C, Miami Marlins (25)
Jose Alvarado, P, Tampa Bay Rays (23)
Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins (25)
Jeimer Candelario, 3B, Detroit Tigers (25)
Seranthony Dominguez, P, Philadelphia Phillies (24)
Ian Happ, IF/OF, Chicago Cubs (24)
Jordan Hicks, P, St. Louis Cardinals (22)
Eloy Jimenez, OF, Chicago White Sox (22)
Ramon Laureano, OF, Oakland Athletics (24)
Reynaldo Lopez, P, Chicago White Sox (25)
Manuel Margot, OF, San Diego Padres (24)
Ketel Marte, 2B/SS, Arizona Diamondbacks (25)
Ryan McMahon, 1B, Colorado Rockies (24)
A.J. Minter, P, Atlanta Braves (25)
Yoan Moncada, 2B, Chicago White Sox (23)
Ryan O'Hearn, 1B/DH, Kansas City Royals (25)
Alex Reyes, P, St. Louis Cardinals (24)
Victor Robles, OF, Washington Nationals (21)
Amed Rosario, SS, New York Mets (23)
Miguel Sano, DH/3B, Minnesota Twins (25)
Mike Soroka, P, Atlanta Braves (21)
Dansby Swanson, SS, Atlanta Braves (25)
Antonio Senzatela, P, Colorado Rockies (24)
Luke Weaver, P, St. Louis Cardinals (25)
Joe Adell, OF, Los Angeles Angels (19)
Pete Alonso, 1B, New York Mets (24)
Bo Bichette, SS, Toronto Blue Jays (21)
Casey Mize, P, Detroit Tigers (21)
Christian Pache, OF, Atlanta Braves (20)
Chris Paddack, P, San Diego Padres (23)
Brendan Rodgers, IF, Colorado Rockies (22)
Nick Senzel, 3B/2B/OF, Cincinnati Reds (23)
Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, San Diego Padres (20)
Forrest Whitley, P, Houston Astros (21)
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)